The Department of Defense maintains a training college for future
Latin American military leaders at Fort Benning, Georgia known as the
Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation ("WHINSEC").
Congress created WHINSEC as a replacement for the School of the
Americas ("SOA"), which was founded in 1946 when the United States
Army established the Latin American Training Center &endash; U.S.
Ground Forces in Panama. The program expanded and was renamed the
U.S. School of the Americas in 1963. In 1984, the School left Panama
and moved to Fort Benning. After years of negative press coverage and
mounting public pressure against SOA, Congress officially closed the
School of the Americas in October 2000. Seeking a new start, Congress
created WHINSEC as part of the Floyd D. Spence National Defense
Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001.
Public watchdog groups, lead principally by the School of the
Americas Watch ("SOA Watch"), began criticizing SOA in the early
1990s. The 1989 killing of six Jesuit priests, their co-worker, and
her teenage daughter in El Salvador incited SOA Watch to organize and
protest the School. Nineteen of the twenty-six individuals eventually
implicated in the murders were SOA graduates. After learning this
information, concerned citizens inquired into the military practices
being taught at SOA. They wanted to know what moral principles SOA
was instilling in its students and whether the School was teaching
future Latin American military leaders to abuse human rights.
Anti-SOA legislation was first introduced in the House of
Representatives in 1993 after a Newsweek article published that
summer, titled "Running a 'School for Dictators,'" brought national
attention to the School. On August 6, 1993, Rep. Martin Meehan (D-MA)
addressed the House in order to notify other representatives about
the track record of SOA graduates. He spoke of the Newsweek article
and also expressed concern about human rights violations perpetrated
in El Salvador by former students. Rep. Meehan explained that "[i]f
the School of Americas held an alumni association meeting, it would
bring together some of the most unsavory thugs in the Western
Hemisphere." He did not suggest a bill or an amendment, the
Representative merely wanted to ensure that the House was aware of
SOA and to urge it to take a closer examination of the School.
The following month, Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-MA) offered an
Amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 1994.
This Amendment would have reduced the Army operation and maintenance
account by $2.9 million, the amount dedicated to running SOA. Rep.
Kennedy explained that the intent of the Amendment was to close the
A lively floor debate in the Committee of the Whole ensued. Most
of the arguments that would resurface year-after-year in Congress,
from both SOA supporters and critics, came up during this debate.
Surveying the points made on both sides provides a framework for the
opposing views that eventually would compromise to close SOA and open
Rep. Kennedy initiated the 1993 debate by listing infamous SOA
graduates. He spoke of Leopoldo Galtieri, the ex-head of the
Argentine Junta; Roberto D'Aubuisson, organizer of Salvadoran death
squads; and, Manuel Noriega, whom he noted was currently serving time
in a U.S. Federal Prison. It was crucial for Rep. Kennedy to mention
notorious graduates that other members of the House would recognize
by name. Although some representatives may not have been familiar
with Galtieri or D'Aubuisson, very few could have been ignorant of
the infamous Noriega, given that the United States had invaded Panama
in December 1989 to capture him.
Rep. Kennedy also provided statistics citing numerous SOA
graduates involved in severe human rights abuses. For example, he
noted a 1992 report by a coalition of human rights groups charging
two hundred forty-six Columbian officers with human rights abuses. Of
those, one hundred had connections with SOA as either students or
instructors. Of course, Kennedy also mentioned the infamous 1989
killing of the Jesuits and their housemates in El Salvador.
The slayings in El Salvador have become symbolic to opponents of
the school. In response to the killings, SOA Watch has held annual
vigils at the gates of Fort Benning to mark the anniversary of the
murders and to call for the School's permanent closure. This year, on
November 15-17, anywhere from 6,500 to 10,000 people gathered outside
the School to demonstrate their continuing commitment to this issue.
In Congress too, this one example of military brutality in El
Salvador has resurfaced year-after-year and was still percolating in
recent debates on Capitol Hill. The slaying of the Jesuits continues
to be seen as a paradigmatic example of the horrendous abuses some
SOA graduates tend to commit.
Leading the opposition to Rep. Kennedy's 1993 Amendment was Rep.
Sanford Bishop (D-GA) from the Second District of Georgia, which
includes Fort Benning. Rep. Bishop had an understandable motive to
fight for the School because it brought funds, jobs, and even some
military prestige to his district. In this debate, he eventually
mounted a successful opposition to the Kennedy Amendment.
Rep. Bishop initiated his argument by referring to the "uninformed
rhetoric" employed by those seeking to close SOA and then attempted
to counterbalance their arguments. To illustrate that the School had
produced some good results, for example, Rep. Bishop cited his own
statistics. He explained that SOA's "graduates include 10 Presidents,
38 ministers of defense and state, 71 commanders of armed forces, and
25 service chiefs of staff in Latin America." While this record
showed that alumni have attained high status in their civilian
governments and militaries, it did not address the issues inherent in
the statistics and anecdotal evidence Rep. Kennedy presented. Merely
because an individual attains power in the military or government
does not preclude that person from committing human rights abuses,
ignoring democratic principles, or engaging in narcotics trafficking.
After all, Manuel Noriega was President of Panama until the United
States removed him from power.
In a debate the following year over a similar amendment to close
SOA, Rep. Kennedy partially responded to Rep. Bishop's argument that
many SOA graduates have attained high status in their home countries.
Rep. Kennedy explained that of the 10 heads of state that SOA
advocates included on their roster of positive results, not one
ascended to power through democratic election and in many cases these
individuals actually overthrew the civilian governments that brought
them into power.
In the 1993 debate, Rep. Bishop also attempted to show that SOA
was aware of some of its past failings and that it was making an
effort to change. He explained that "[h]uman rights awareness is an
indispensable element in the school's curriculum." While he cited no
specific classes, Rep. Bishop referred to "training in law and law
welfare, the Geneva and Hague Conventions, and military law and
ethics." However, he gave no indication how these issues were taught
or how many students actually enrolled in the classes teaching these
Rep. Kennedy had conceded earlier in the debate that SOA recently
added a few hours of human rights training to its courses.
Nonetheless, he possessed evidence indicating that the mood of the
school's instructors did not foster an atmosphere in which the
promotion of human rights would be effective. He had met with a human
rights expert invited to speak at SOA. According to Rep. Kennedy, the
expert "came away convinced that the School's instructors, many of
them from Latin America, were either indifferent or hostile to [the
expert's] message, and that the school should be closed."
Another argument put forth by Rep. Bishop was that SOA's charter
directed it to conduct a doctrinally sound training program that
would promote military professionalism, foster a greater cooperation
among multinational military forces, and expand the Latin American
militaries' knowledge of U.S. customs and traditions, especially
democracy. This assertion hardly addressed the issue. Organizations
can stray from their charters. Just because SOA may have been founded
with a positive purpose to bring peace and democracy to Latin America
does not mean that the School has lived up to its mission. In fact,
earlier in the debate Rep. Kennedy had presented compelling evidence
to the contrary.
Obviously, the deliberations involved many other representatives
expressing their views on the Amendment as well. Rep. Meehan, for
example, read an excerpt from a letter he received from the
Department of Defense in response to his question asking "why [the
U.S.] should be spending millions of dollars to train foreign
soldiers who use the skills they learn at the School of the Americas
to brutalize their own people?" The Secretary of Defense responded,
"[t]o assume that one short course in the United States can
counteract perhaps contradictory messages absorbed over a lifetime
from within one's own culture and elsewhere overestimates the
missions and power of School of the Americas training."
The Secretary's argument is frequently espoused by SOA defenders.
They maintain that the School does not teach students to behave in
these objectionable manners. According to this theory, much of the
School's failings stem from its inability to alter the attitudes of
some students already thoroughly indoctrinated in abusive,
undemocratic military philosophies before coming to the School. There
is probably some veracity to this argument. Undoubtedly, some
students attending SOA had a propensity for violence before they set
foot at Fort Benning. In an interview with Steven Schneebaum,
Vice-Chairman of WHINSEC's Board of Visitors, he explained that a
number of the people who perpetrated bad acts have come from military
cultures where this type of behavior is accepted. Furthermore,
selection by one's military or government to attend class at SOA has
been seen as somewhat of an honor. The individuals recommended by
their countries for admission to the School were likely to have been
selected because they had bright futures in their militaries. In many
Latin American militaristic environments, the individuals with
optimistic futures are those with reputations for action, who may
tend to employ tactics objectionable to a democratic society.
While this is a valid claim that may partly explain why so many
SOA graduates have committed atrocious crimes against humanity, it
also raises another recurring question. Critics want to know why
these dangerous individuals were confirmed by U.S. Embassies to
attend SOA in the first place. The SOA detractors have called for
more extensive background checks on students before being admitted to
the program. Even in the original 1993 House debate, some SOA
supporters suggested that altering the recruitment process would be a
positive change. For example, Rep. Mac Collins (R-GA) attacked the
Kennedy Amendment as missing the mark. He maintained that the
School's curriculum and mission were sound. If any changes were
necessary, according to Rep. Collins, they should have occurred in
the State Department because this was the body responsible for
selecting students. He suggested there be an "even stricter criteria
on which soldiers are chosen for the program . . . [and that]
countries that send a high percentage of students later convicted of
human rights abuses should be restricted accordingly." It is quite
likely that SOA would have produced fewer human rights abusers if the
State Department had done a better job screening out applicants
predisposed to this behavior.
Another line of reasoning spouted in congressional debates each
year by SOA supporters, the Ivy League argument, was first introduced
in the 1993 House debate. Rep. Robert Livingston (R-LA) suggested
that following the logic of SOA critics, "the Wharton School of
Finance could be blamed because Michael Milken went there." Milken,
the infamous investment banker, plead guilty to six felony counts of
securities fraud, was given a lifetime ban on his license to operate
in the securities industry, and was sentenced to ten years in prison.
Rep. Livingston was implying, by analogy, that it is improper to
blame a highly respected educational institution simply because a few
graduates may have used the knowledge gained there for dishonorable
purposes. Rep. Kennedy responded to this argument by indicating that
if any other U.S. schools had SOA's track record, producing such a
substantial number of human rights abusers, that they would have to
be closed as well.
Year-after-year, SOA supporters in Congress bring up infamous
characters in the news, recite the schools that these individuals
have graduated from, and imply that it would be absurd to close these
schools based on one or two bad apples. In a 2000 debate regarding an
amendment to close SOA, for instance, Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-AL)
mentioned the Unabomber and indicated that it would be ridiculous to
close Harvard merely because Ted Kaczynski went there. Rep. Joseph
Moakley (D-MA), the author of the 2000 Amendment, responded that "we
did not teach the Unabomber how to make bombs at Harvard." SOA
critics also note that SOA has not produced one or two bad
characters. Instead, they maintain, it has consistently graduated
individuals who use the skills learned at the School to brutalize
people in their home countries.
Another major anti-SOA argument centers on the idea that the
School has outlived its purpose and "with its history and tradition
of abusive graduates, stands as a barrier to establishing a new and
constructive relationship with Latin American militaries after the
cold war." SOA was originally developed to help spread democracy to
Latin America. SOA detractors in Congress spoke of the need to close
or reform the institution so that future Latin American leaders could
be taught the skills necessary to succeed in a post-Cold War world.
In the 1993 House debate over the Kennedy Amendment, Rep. Meehan
explained that "the primary objective of U.S. foreign policy in the
Western Hemisphere since World War II&emdash;to contain the expansion
of Soviet influence&emdash;has been plant-supplanted by the need to
encourage respect for democracy and human rights along with economic
development and an end to narcotics trafficking." He also maintained
that "[he did] not think we should be educating violent criminals in
techniques they can use to violate the basic rights of innocent
people." If the U.S. insists on training Latin American soldiers,
according to SOA critics, the education should be rooted in
principles of human rights and democracy, not war tactics.
At the conclusion of the 1993 debate over Rep. Kennedy's Amendment
to close SOA, when the recorded vote was tallied, the Kennedy
Amendment lost 174 to 256. Although anti-SOA activists were handed a
defeat, it was also a significant victory for supporters of the
movement. For the first time, Congress had taken a serious look at
the School and questioned its necessity. That Rep. Kennedy was able
to garner a significant amount of support, 174 votes, for a first
attempt to close SOA, was a triumph in itself.
Rep. Kennedy made a second attempt to close SOA in 1994 by
introducing an Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act
for Fiscal Year 1995. The debate over the Amendment was fairly
similar in form and content to that which took place over the 1993
Amendment, with most of the original arguments and evidence being
rehashed by both sides. However, some key additions surfaced as well.
Representatives supporting SOA mentioned new policies that the School
and State Department had implemented in response to the public and
congressional outrage over SOA's past graduates. Rep. Bishop
explained that the School had recently formed a policy review board
to scrutinize SOA's courses and to ensure that human rights training
was an integral part of the curriculum. SOA called this group the
Board of Visitors, which eventually would serve for two terms, one
from 1995 to 1998 and another from 1998 until Congress officially
closed the School in 2000. The extent to which this group fostered
real change at SOA is debatable.
A new tactic utilized by SOA supporters in the 1994 debate, to
counterbalance the negative anecdotal evidence offered by SOA
critics, was to introduce their own anecdotal evidence demonstrating
that SOA graduates have been beneficial for Latin America. For
example, Rep. Bishop spoke of Jose Gallardo Roman, Ecuador's Minister
of Defense. He noted that General Gallardo strongly supported
democratic principles and respected human rights. Rep. Bishop
illustrated this contention by noting that Gallardo "signed an accord
with the Latin American Association on Human Rights to begin a
sweeping human rights training program throughout the Armed Forces."
While it was an encouraging assertion that some SOA graduates have
used their training to make positive reforms in their home countries,
anti-SOA activists did not doubt this to be the case. Instead, the
activists were arguing that although the School may have produced
some positive results, it has failed altogether too many times to
justify its continuance.
Rep. Martin Hoke (D-OH) presented a novel argument in the 1994
debate by attacking the School not based on its record, but by
classifying it as unnecessary defense spending. He asked members of
the House, especially Republicans, how they could vote to eliminate
funding for the ICC, the National Helium Reserve, and the honey bee
subsidy, among other things, and continue to support SOA. For Rep.
Hoke, to support a smaller federal government, representatives needed
to cancel this "Georgia defense pork."
During the deliberations surrounding the 1994 Amendment, Rep. Jim
Kolbe (R-AZ) addressed the argument that SOA admits students with
substandard human rights records. He explained that seven months
earlier "the United States [had] strengthened the selection process
for candidates seeking to attend the SOA. This process includes
checking names by U.S. intelligence agencies and State Department
security officers." While this was positive reform, it was something
the U.S. should have been doing all along. There was little solace
for anti-SOA activists that the government would now be giving
candidates more thorough background checks.
Another key addition to the debate was a highly visible public
protest at the Capitol to coincide with the House's deliberations
over the 1994 Amendment. Rep. Kennedy noted that, "we see just on the
House steps, Father Roy Bourgeois, who has gone on a hunger strike
for 40 days, to demonstrate his personal commitment and the
commitment of millions of others that our association with the school
ought to end." This direct action by SOA Watch, its founder Father
Roy Bourgeois, and other concerned citizens was crucial because it
showed Congress that many constituents were concerned about SOA.
Other congressman too, such as Rep. Hamburg, noted that individuals
from his "district [have] joined with people from across the country
on the steps of the Capitol for the past month, fasting against
continued funding of the School."
A final important development from the 1994 debate was that SOA
critics swayed at least one representative who had voted against the
1993 Amendment. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) explained that the previous
year she "voted against this amendment because [she] believed that it
was important to try and impress upon the Latin American military
officers who trained at the school American values, especially
respect for human rights and democracy." It appears that Rep. Lowey
had previously subscribed to the pro-SOA rhetoric. In supporting the
1994 Amendment, however, she noted that "it is now clear . . . that
the school has failed to achieve those objectives." Perhaps, upon
further investigation, Rep. Lowey realized that SOA was not exactly
the school that its supporters portrayed it to be. Unfortunately for
anti-SOA activists, however, Rep. Kennedy's 1994 Amendment failed 175
In 1995, Rep. Kennedy attempted to attack the School using a
different approach. Instead of calling solely for its closure by
amendment, he sponsored a bill that would have closed the School and
established a U.S. Academy for Democracy and Civil-Military Relations
to take its place. This proposed educational institution would have
provided training to Latin American civilian and military personnel
through seminars, roundtable discussions, conferences, and a guest
instructor program. It would have been committed to teaching respect
for democracy and human rights and also would have had oversight from
an advisory committee to review its curriculum.
The Bill was referred to the House Committee on National Security,
but no action was taken. While this was another failure, it was an
interesting attempt to bridge the gap between the pro- and anti-SOA
factions. It addressed some concerns of SOA critics because it would
have closed the School. It attended to pro-SOA interests in that the
new school would have ensured that the U.S. military could still have
a hand in the training of future Latin American leaders. Apparently,
the House was not interested in this sort of compromise at this
point. Nonetheless, the Bill foreshadowed the type of agreement that
Congress eventually would make in 2000 when it closed SOA and
replaced it with WHINSEC.
In 1996, partly due to the political atmosphere in the
Republican-controlled House, Rep. Kennedy knew that he could not
garner the type of support he received in 1993 and 1994. Nonetheless,
he offered an Amendment to the Foreign Operations, Export Financing,
and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 1997, which would have
removed all SOA funding. On the floor, Rep. Kennedy briefly discussed
the School's past shames but withdrew the Amendment before bringing
it to a vote, so as to preserve the "capability of winning on this
issue in the future." Even knowing that he would not take the
Amendment to a vote, Rep. Kennedy still presented the issue to his
fellow representatives, thereby keeping SOA atrocities fresh in their
The 105th Congress, lasting from 1997 through 1998, was a busy
time for SOA legislation, with the anti-SOA faction attaining
significant moral victories. It is quite possible that the release of
SOA training manuals in September 1996 may have sparked renewed
interest in the issue. For example, in a speech supporting an
amendment to close SOA, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) noted a Pentagon
report on certain training manuals employed at SOA between 1982 and
"According to the Pentagon's own excerpts, School of the Americas
students were advised to imprison those from whom they were seeking
information; to 'involuntarily' obtain information from those
sources&emdash;in other words, torture them; to arrest their parents;
to use 'motivation by fear'; pay bounties for enemy dead; execute
opponents; subvert the press; and use torture, blackmail, and even
injections of truth serum to obtain information. These tactics come
right out of an SS manual and have no place in a civilized society."
It was difficult for Congress to ignore this hard evidence that
SOA training had encompassed the very abusive methods many alumni
later employed in their home countries after graduation.
In 1997, responding to mounting public disapproval of the School,
Rep. Esteban Torres (D-CA) offered an Amendment to the Foreign
Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act
of 1998 that would have removed all SOA funding. For the first time,
a congressman other than Rep. Kennedy introduced an amendment to
close SOA. It was defeated by the narrow margin of 210 to 217. Even
though it did not pass, the introduction of this Amendment showed the
House that closing SOA was more than just Rep. Kennedy's pet issue.
Other congressman were finally getting involved as well and
sponsoring their own anti-SOA amendments.
This same year, Rep. Kennedy also offered an amendment to close
SOA. Like the Torres Amendment, it would have suspended all funding
for the School. It too failed, this time 201 to 212. The House
debates over these two amendments involved the usual rhetoric from
both sides. But as a new addition to the discussions, SOA supporters
were also forced to defend the School from attacks against the
training manuals. For the most part, their defense boiled down to an
admission that the manuals should never have been employed, but that
they were no longer in use and that SOA detractors had taken many of
the objectionable teachings out of context.
SOA supporters in the House also charged SOA critics of
"continuing year after year, rehashing the same ground, regurgitating
the same arguments over and over again." One representative noted
that the debate should have been timely, not timeless, and that the
time to debate this issue was in the early 1990s when the School was
in need of serious reform. As of 1997, the supporters maintained, SOA
had implemented significant changes in that every course (except for
the computer course) had four hours of mandatory human rights
instruction; every instructor was certified to teach human rights;
and, the School had an oversight Board of Visitors on which strong
human rights advocates served.
Despite mounting frustration by the pro-SOA faction, many
congressmen continued to attack the School, calling for its closure.
During this same Congress, in addition to sponsoring an amendment to
close SOA, Rep. Kennedy also introduced a bill to accomplish the same
task. It was referred to the House Committee on National Security but
was never referred out of committee nor brought to a vote.
Another first for the anti-SOA campaign during the 105th Congress
was that the Senate finally got involved in the issue. Sen. Dick
Durbin (D-IL), who served in the House from 1983 to 1997 and who has
served in the Senate since then, introduced a bill to close SOA. In a
speech supporting his bill, Sen. Durbin discussed the human rights
records of past graduates, the training manuals released in 1996, and
the shame SOA brought to the U.S. The bill was referred to the Senate
Armed Services Committee where it sat without action. Although the
bill was never brought to a vote, Sen. Durbin had finally introduced
the issue to Senators who previously had been unwilling to address
SOA's many troubles. It is interesting that the Senate had refused to
get involved with the issue until Sen. Durbin, who had supported the
School's closure while a member of the House, finally brought it to
their attention when he moved to the Senate in 1997.
At the close of the 105th Congress in 1998, Rep. Kennedy retired
from the House of Representatives. Since 1993, he had put forth a
valiant fight to close SOA. While he was not there to take part in
it, Sen. Kennedy's desire to close SOA would be partially fulfilled
in the 106th Congress.
Rep. Moakley took over where Rep. Kennedy had left off. In 1999,
he introduced a bill to close SOA, which was referred to the Armed
Services Committee. In a brief speech supporting his bill, Rep.
Moakley referred to the 1989 killing of the Jesuits, the shame that
SOA brought to America, and the fact that U.S. citizens were spending
$18 million every year to keep the School operational. Although the
bill had 156 co-sponsors, it never made it out of the Armed Services
Rep. Moakley also sponsored an Amendment to limit assistance to
SOA, but not to close the School. The debate over this amendment
resembled the many that had preceded it over the years. Like usual,
SOA supporters noted that the School had been trying very hard to
institute reform and that it had made real progress in this effort.
For example, Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) explained that his staff
delegation had visited SOA twice over the preceding year and was
pleased to see that the School had strengthened its curriculum in
response to Congressional oversight. He mentioned the new SOA policy
whereby every student in all fifty-five courses received between
eight and forty hours of formal human rights instruction, depending
on the length of each course. In addition, Rep. Bishop indicated that
the Board of Visitors, which included some "noted human rights
figures," was providing excellent oversight and would have known if
SOA offered instruction in abusive or undemocratic techniques.
An argument brought forth by SOA detractors maintained that
although SOA may have instituted some new human rights courses, only
a handful of students were taking them. For example, one of the very
few human rights courses offered at this time was the "Train the
Trainer Qualification Course." Rep. Tom Campbell (R-CA) explained
that as of 1999, no one was taking it. Also, according to Rep.
Campbell, the "Command in General Staff" course, a class teaching
peace and democracy, had only 28 enrollees in 1998 and 1999. Rep.
Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) summed it up when she proclaimed that of all
the "courses offered at the SOA, only five are related to human
rights or democracy and less than ten percent of the students took
those last year. None have taken the human rights trainer course."
After it came to a vote, the Moakley Amendment survived 230 to
197. For the first time, the House had passed legislation condemning
SOA. Although the Amendment would have cut only about 10 percent of
SOA's funding, it was seen as a monumental victory for the anti-SOA
movement. Unfortunately for SOA detractors, however, the Senate did
not approve a similar cut. The proposal to stem SOA funding was
defeated by one vote in the House-Senate conference committee.
The Senate attempted to take action against SOA in 1999 as well
when Sen. Durbin introduced a bill to close SOA. He obtained the same
result as his previous effort sponsoring anti-SOA
legislation&emdash;the bill was referred to the Senate Armed Services
Committee where it sat without any further action.
SOA finally closed in 2000 as part of the Floyd D. Spence National
Defense Authorization Act for 2001. In this same bill, Congress
established the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security
Cooperation. While some provisions were written into the bill to make
WHINSEC different from SOA, it remains to be seen how significant or
effective they will prove to be in the future. As one example, the
Secretary of Defense is authorized to operate WHINSEC, while SOA was
commanded by the Secretary of the Army. The bill, however, also
permits the Secretary of Defense to designate a secretary of a
military department to carry out these responsibilities. It is not
surprising that the Department of Defense selected the Secretary of
the Army as its executive agent. Thus, WHINSEC is still essentially
operated by the Secretary of the Army, just like SOA.
As another example, WHINSEC's congressionally mandated mission is
to provide professional education and training to military, law
enforcement, and civilian personnel from Western Hemisphere nations.
Theoretically, WHINSEC is supposed to promote peace and strong
international bonds by teaching democratic values and respect for
human rights, while introducing foreign students to U.S. customs and
traditions. The mandated curriculum for each student includes at
least eight hours of instruction on human rights, the rule of law,
due process, civilian control of the military, and the role of the
military in a democratic society. While instruction in human rights
and democratic values is important, eight hours is insufficient given
the amount of time foreign soldiers may spend at Fort Benning and the
potential difficulties inherent in altering their preconceived
notions about human rights and democracy. Furthermore, SOA already
mandated eight hours of human rights training even before WHINSEC was
created. Requiring eight hours of instruction does not substantially
increase student exposure to these important teachings.
As another example, to acknowledge SOA's outdated purpose after
the Cold War, Congress provided that the curriculum may include
leadership development, counter drug operations, peace support
operations, disaster relief, and any other matters that the Secretary
deems appropriate. While this appears to be a decent list of
important, post-Cold War fundamentals, it is somewhat vague and
possibly gives the Secretary too much latitude to institute programs
that may teach objectionable subject matters.
Congress also set up a Board of Visitors ("BOV") to provide
WHINSEC with outside oversight. The BOV includes the Chairmen and
ranking minority members of the Committees on Armed Services in the
House and Senate, or their designees; six persons designated by the
Secretary of Defense including, to the extent practicable, persons
from academia and the religious and human rights communities; one
person designated by the Secretary of State; the senior military
officer responsible for training and doctrine of the Army; and, the
commander of the unified combatant command having geographic
responsibility for Latin America, or that officer's designee.
Again, while it is crucial to provide outside oversight, the BOV
is not a considerable improvement over the type of oversight provided
to SOA, which had a Board of Visitors as well. Nonetheless, the new
Board does have some positive aspects to it. First, unlike the
original BOV, it is congressionally mandated and will be required to
meet every year. Second, it is composed of individuals with widely
varied viewpoints, including Senators, Representatives, academicians,
military leaders, and persons concerned with human rights and
religious issues. After surveying their credentials, the individuals
selected to serve on the current BOV seem to be well qualified. To
his credit, the Secretary of Defense appears to have picked some
respected members of the academic, religious, and human rights
communities for the inaugural WHINSEC BOV.
As part of its statutory duties, within sixty days of its annual
meeting at Fort Benning, the BOV must submit a report to the
Secretary of Defense detailing its views and recommendations for
WHINSEC. This information should then be included in an annual report
that the Secretary of Defense will present to Congress regarding
WHINSEC's operations. Hopefully, in this fashion, Congress will be
made aware of any significant problems with WHINSEC's curriculum or
operations. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen how much information
the Secretary will provide to Congress.
Steven Schneebaum, Vice-Chairman of WHINSEC's Board of Visitors,
seems quite pleased with the composition of the current Board and
with WHINSEC in general. Mr. Schneebaum, an attorney, has significant
human rights experience, including fourteen years with the
International Human Rights Law Group and four years of service with
the original SOA Board of Visitors. The WHINSEC BOV recently
completed its inaugural inspection at Fort Benning on December 12-13,
Regarding the human rights instruction, Mr. Schneebaum explains
that much of the teaching is done through the case study method.
Students study past military atrocities such as Mi Lai, the 1989
murders of the Jesuits in El Salvador, and the massacre at El Mozote.
WHINSEC utilizes case studies because the School believes them to be
the most effective means to show students what may happen when
military officers ignore human rights principles. The bottom line,
according to Mr. Schneebaum, is that the human rights program is
solid and that students are getting the message.
Regarding the other substantive courses, most WHINSEC professors
are U.S. military officers with assistant instructors in many classes
being foreign military officers. As was the case at SOA, all classes
at WHINSEC are conducted in Spanish. Mr. Schneebaum maintains that
most WHINSEC courses teach non-classical military techniques. They
offer instruction in counter drug operations, natural disaster
response, police activities, and peacekeeping operations, among
others. And, of course, the infamous SOA torture manuals are not
utilized at WHINSEC. Thus, according to the BOV's Vice-Chairman, it
initially appears that WHINSEC is living up to its congressionally
In its inaugural report, the BOV will suggest to the Secretary of
Defense that WHINSEC improve its instruction on civilian-military
relations. Mr. Schneebaum noted that the School's curriculum does not
focus enough on subordination of the military to civilian control. He
does not, however, fault WHINSEC for this deficiency. Given SOA's
dismal human rights record, WHINSEC was extremely concerned with its
human rights program and expended a great deal of time and resources
into its development. Other important areas of instruction, such as
the military's role in a democratic society, took a back burner to
human rights training because this was the primary concern of
Congress and the public. Mr. Schneebaum claims that WHINSEC will be
addressing this problem over the next few months.
One major concern that WHINSEC does not address is the tracking of
graduates. On its website, WHINSEC maintains that U.S. law prohibits
it from tracking foreign students when they return to their home
countries. A tracking program would be an important safeguard because
it would demonstrate whether WHINSEC graduates perform better than
SOA graduates with regards to respecting democratic principles and
human rights. I was unable to uncover any U.S. laws that prohibit the
tracking of foreign students at Department of Defense schools. Even
Mr. Schneebaum disagrees with WHINSEC's claim and does not believe
that any such law exists.
Another area of concern for anti-SOA activists that WHINSEC
legislation did not address is the screening of applicants. WHINSEC
explains that all students are screened initially by their own
governments and are then screened again by the U.S. embassies in
their home countries. If there is any indication of wrongdoing in an
applicant's past, this person will not be admitted to WHINSEC. While
this sounds like a fair screening process, there are no
congressionally mandated procedures set in place, so it is up to the
State Department to ensure that it adequately checks all students. It
remains to be seen how well the screening process will work in the
A great deal of congressional and public effort led to the closure
of SOA and the opening of WHINSEC. Most questions, however, still
remain unanswered. We do not know whether WHINSEC graduates will
outperform SOA graduates. We also do not know whether Congress has
established effective procedures and regulations so that WHINSEC will
truly be a different educational institution from SOA. What we do
know is that Congress has changed the School's name, the rest remains
to be seen.
It is important for congressional leaders, SOA Watch, and other
concerned citizens to maintain pressure on WHINSEC in the future.
Over the next few years, there will be little information about the
actions of WHINSEC graduates, given that the first class of students
entered in 2001. Much of the public may forget about SOA's legacy.
Nonetheless, by continuing to call for WHINSEC's closure, anti-SOA
activists can maintain a spotlight on the School. In this manner, if
negative information surfaces regarding the School's teachings or the
actions of any of its graduates, Congress and the public will be
poised to close WHINSEC/SOA once and for all.
SOA Watch733 Euclid Street NWWashington, DC 20001phone: 202-234-3440email: firstname.lastname@example.org